HotFreeBooks.com
Pearl-Maiden
by H. Rider Haggard
1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

PEARL-MAIDEN

A Tale Of The Fall of Jerusalem

By H. Rider Haggard

First Published 1901.

TO

GLADYS CHRISTIAN

A DWELLER IN THE EAST THIS EASTERN TALE IS DEDICATED BY HER OWN AND HER FATHER'S FRIEND

THE AUTHOR

Ditchingham: September 14, 1902.



PEARL-MAIDEN



CHAPTER I

THE PRISON AT CAESAREA

It was but two hours after midnight, yet many were wakeful in Caesarea on the Syrian coast. Herod Agrippa, King of all Palestine—by grace of the Romans—now at the very apex of his power, celebrated a festival in honour of the Emperor Claudius, to which had flocked all the mightiest in the land and tens of thousands of the people. The city was full of them, their camps were set upon the sea-beach and for miles around; there was no room at the inns or in the private houses, where guests slept upon the roofs, the couches, the floors, and in the gardens. The great town hummed like a hive of bees disturbed after sunset, and though the louder sounds of revelling had died away, parties of feasters, many of them still crowned with fading roses, passed along the streets shouting and singing to their lodgings. As they went, they discussed—those of them who were sufficiently sober—the incidents of that day's games in the great circus, and offered or accepted odds upon the more exciting events of the morrow.

The captives in the prison that was set upon a little hill, a frowning building of brown stone, divided into courts and surrounded by a high wall and a ditch, could hear the workmen at their labours in the amphitheatre below. These sounds interested them, since many of those who listened were doomed to take a leading part in the spectacle of this new day. In the outer court, for instance, were a hundred men called malefactors, for the most part Jews convicted of various political offences. These were to fight against twice their number of savage Arabs of the desert taken in a frontier raid, people whom to-day we should know as Bedouins, mounted and armed with swords and lances, but wearing no mail. The malefactor Jews, by way of compensation, were to be protected with heavy armour and ample shields. Their combat was to last for twenty minutes by the sand-glass, when, unless they had shown cowardice, those who were left alive of either party were to receive their freedom. Indeed, by a kindly decree the King Agrippa, a man who did not seek unnecessary bloodshed, contrary to custom, even the wounded were to be spared, that is, if any would undertake the care of them. Under these circumstances, since life is sweet, all had determined to fight their best.

In another division of the great hall was collected a very different company. There were not more than fifty or sixty of these, so the wide arches of the surrounding cloisters gave them sufficient shelter and even privacy. With the exception of eight or ten men, all of them old, or well on in middle age, since the younger and more vigorous males had been carefully drafted to serve as gladiators, this little band was made of women and a few children. They belonged to the new sect called Christians, the followers of one Jesus, who, according to report, was crucified as a troublesome person by the governor, Pontius Pilate, a Roman official, who in due course had been banished to Gaul, where he was said to have committed suicide. In his day Pilate was unpopular in Judaea, for he had taken the treasures of the Temple at Jerusalem to build waterworks, causing a tumult in which many were killed. Now he was almost forgotten, but very strangely, the fame of this crucified demagogue, Jesus, seemed to grow, since there were many who made a kind of god of him, preaching doctrines in his name that were contrary to the law and offensive to every sect of the Jews.

Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Levites, priests, all called out against them. All besought Agrippa that he would be rid of them, these apostates who profaned the land and proclaimed in the ears of a nation awaiting its Messiah, that Heaven-born King who should break the Roman yoke and make Jerusalem the capital of the world, that this Messiah had come already in the guise of an itinerant preacher, and perished with other malefactors by the death of shame.

Wearied with their importunities, the King listened. Like the cultivated Romans with whom he associated, Agrippa had no real religion. At Jerusalem he embellished the Temple and made offerings to Jehovah; at Berytus he embellished the temple and made offerings there to Jupiter. He was all things to all men and to himself—nothing but a voluptuous time-server. As for these Christians, he never troubled himself about them. Why should he? They were few and insignificant, no single man of rank or wealth was to be found among them. To persecute them was easy, and—it pleased the Jews. Therefore he persecuted them. One James, a disciple of the crucified man called Christ, who had wandered about the country with him, he seized and beheaded at Jerusalem. Another, called Peter, a powerful preacher, he threw into prison, and of their followers he slew many. A few of these were given over to be stoned by the Jews, but the pick of the men were forced to fight as gladiators at Berytus and elsewhere. The women, if young and beautiful, were sold as slaves, but if matrons or aged, they were cast to the wild beasts in the circus.

Such was the fate, indeed, that was reserved for these poor victims in the prison on this very day of the opening of our history. After the gladiators had fought and the other games had been celebrated, sixty Christians, it was announced, old and useless men, married woman and young children whom nobody would buy, were to be turned down in the great amphitheatre. Then thirty fierce lions, with other savage beasts, made ravenous by hunger and mad with the smell of blood, were to be let loose among them. Even in this act of justice, however, Agrippa suffered it to be seen that he was gentle-hearted, since of his kindness he had decreed that any whom the lions refused to eat were to be given clothes, a small sum of money, and released to settle their differences with the Jews as they might please.

Such was the state of public feeling and morals in the Roman world of that day, that this spectacle of the feeding of starved beasts with live women and children, whose crime was that they worshipped a crucified man and would offer sacrifice to no other god, either in the Temple or elsewhere, was much looked forward to by the population of Caesarea. Indeed, great sums of money were ventured upon the event, by means of what to-day would be called sweepstakes, under the regulations of which he who drew the ticket marked with the exact number of those whom the lions left alive, would take the first prize. Already some far-seeing gamblers who had drawn low numbers, had bribed the soldiers and wardens to sprinkle the hair and garments of the Christians with valerian water, a decoction which was supposed to attract and excite the appetite of these great cats. Others, whose tickets were high, paid handsomely for the employment of artifices which need not be detailed, calculated to induce in the lions aversion to the subject that had been treated. The Christian woman or child, it will be observed, who was to form the corpus vile of these ingenious experiments, was not considered, except, indeed, as the fisherman considers the mussel or the sand-worm on his hook.

Under an arch by themselves, and not far from the great gateway where the guards, their lances in hand, could be seen pacing up and down, sat two women. The contrast in the appearance of this pair was very striking. One, who could not have been much more than twenty years of age, was a Jewess, too thin-faced for beauty, but with dark and lovely eyes, and bearing in every limb and feature the stamp of noble blood. She was Rachel, the widow of Demas, a Graeco-Syrian, and only child of the high-born Jew Benoni, one of the richest merchants in Tyre. The other was a woman of remarkable aspect, apparently about forty years of age. She was a native of the coasts of Libya, where she had been kidnapped as a girl by Jewish traders, and by them passed on to Phoenicians, who sold her upon the slave market of Tyre. In fact she was a high-bred Arab without any admixture of negro blood, as was shown by her copper-coloured skin, prominent cheek bones, her straight, black, abundant hair, and untamed, flashing eyes. In frame she was tall and spare, very agile, and full of grace in every movement. Her face was fierce and hard; even in her present dreadful plight she showed no fear, only when she looked at the lady by her side it grew anxious and tender. She was called Nehushta, a name which Benoni had given her when many years ago he bought her upon the market-place. In Hebrew Nehushta means copper, and this new slave was copper-coloured. In her native land, however, she had another name, Nou, and by this name she was known to her dead mistress, the wife of Benoni, and to his daughter Rachel, whom she had nursed from childhood.

The moon shone very brightly in a clear sky, and by the light of it an observer, had there been any to observe where all were so occupied with their own urgent affairs, could have watched every movement and expression of these women. Rachel, seated on the ground, was rocking herself to and fro, her face hidden in her hands, and praying. Nehushta knelt at her side, resting the weight of her body on her heels as only an Eastern can, and stared sullenly at nothingness.

Presently Rachel, dropping her hands, looked at the tender sky and sighed.

"Our last night on earth, Nou," she said sadly. "It is strange to think that we shall never again see the moon floating above us."

"Why not, mistress? If all that we have been taught is true, we shall see that moon, or others, for ever and ever, and if it is not true, then neither light nor darkness will trouble us any more. However, for my own part I don't mean that either of us should die to-morrow."

"How can you prevent it, Nou?" asked Rachel with a faint smile. "Lions are no respecters of persons."

"Yet, mistress, I think that they will respect my person, and yours, too, for my sake."

"What do you mean, Nou?"

"I mean that I do not fear the lions; they are country-folk of mine and roared round my cradle. The chief, my father, was called Master of Lions in our country because he could tame them. Why, when I was a little child I have fed them and they fawned upon us like dogs."

"Those lions are long dead, Nou, and the others will not remember."

"I am not sure that they are dead; at least, blood will call to blood, and their company will know the smell of the child of the Master of Lions. Whoever is eaten, we shall escape."

"I have no such hope, Nou. To-morrow we must die horribly, that King Agrippa may do honour to his master, Caesar."

"If you think that, mistress, then let us die at once rather than be rent limb from limb to give pleasure to a stinking mob. See, I have poison hidden here in my hair. Let us drink of it and be done: it is swift and painless."

"Nay, Nou, it would not be right. I may lift no hand against my own life, or if perchance I may, I have to think of another life."

"If you die, the unborn child must die also. To-night or to-morrow, what does it matter?"

"Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof. Who knows? To-morrow Agrippa may be dead, not us, and then the child might live. It is in the hand of God. Let God decide."

"Lady," answered Nehushta, setting her teeth, "for your sake I have become a Christian, yes, and I believe. But I tell you this—while I live no lion's fangs shall tear that dear flesh of yours. First if need be, I will stab you there in the arena, or if they take my knife from me, then I will choke you, or dash out your brains against the posts."

"It may be a sin, Nou; take no such risk upon your soul."

"My soul! What do I care about my soul? You are my soul. Your mother was kind to me, the poor slave-girl, and when you were an infant, I rocked you upon my breast. I spread your bride-bed, and if need be, to save you from worse things, I will lay you dead before me and myself dead across your body. Then let God or Satan—I care not which—deal with my soul. At least, I shall have done my best and died faithful."

"You should not speak so," sighed Rachel. "But, dear, I know it is because you love me, and I wish to die as easily as may be and to join my husband. Only if the child could have lived, as I think, all three of us would have dwelt together eternally. Nay, not all three, all four, for you are well-nigh as dear to me, Nou, as husband or as child."

"That cannot be, I do not wish that it should be, who am but a slave woman, the dog beneath the table. Oh! if I could save you, then I would be glad to show them how this daughter of my father can bear their torments."

The Libyan ceased, grinding her teeth in impotent rage. Then suddenly she leant towards her mistress, kissed her fiercely on the cheek and began to sob, slow, heavy sobs.

"Listen," said Rachel. "The lions are roaring in their dens yonder."

Nehushta lifted her head and hearkened as a hunter hearkens in the desert. True enough, from near the great tower that ended the southern wall of the amphitheatre, echoed short, coughing notes and fierce whimperings, to be followed presently by roar upon roar, as lion after lion joined in that fearful music, till the whole air shook with the volume of their voices.

"Aha!" cried a keeper at the gate—not the Roman soldier who marched to and fro unconcernedly, but a jailor, named Rufus, who was clad in a padded robe and armed with a great knife. "Aha! listen to them, the pretty kittens. Don't be greedy, little ones—be patient. To-night you will purr upon a full stomach."

"Nine of them," muttered Nehushta, who had counted the roars, "all bearded and old, royal beasts. To hearken to them makes me young again. Yes, yes, I smell the desert and see the smoke rising from my father's tents. As a child I hunted them, now they will hunt me; it is their hour."

"Give me air! I faint!" gasped Rachel, sinking against her.

With a guttural exclamation of pity Nehushta bent down. Placing her strong arms beneath the slender form of her young mistress, and lifting her as though she were a child, she carried her to the centre of the court, where stood a fountain; for before it was turned to the purposes of a jail once this place had been a palace. Here she set her mistress on the ground with her back against the stonework, and dashed water in her face till presently she was herself again.

While Rachel sat thus—for the place was cool and pleasant and she could not sleep who must die that day—a wicket-gate was opened and several persons, men, women, and children, were thrust through it into the court.

"Newcomers from Tyre in a great hurry not to lose the lions' party," cried the facetious warden of the gate. "Pass in, my Christian friends, pass in and eat your last supper according to your customs. You will find it over there, bread and wine in plenty. Eat, my hungry friends, eat before you are eaten and enter into Heaven or—the stomach of the lions."

An old woman, the last of the party, for she could not walk fast, turned round and pointed at the buffoon with her staff.

"Blaspheme not, you heathen dog!" she said, "or rather, blaspheme on and go to your reward! I, Anna, who have the gift of prophecy, tell you, renegade who were a Christian, and therefore are doubly guilty, that you have eaten your last meal—on earth."

The man, a half-bred Syrian who had abandoned his faith for profit and now tormented those who were once his brethren, uttered a furious curse and snatched a knife from his girdle.

"You draw the knife? So be it, perish by the knife!" said Anna. Then without heeding him further the old woman hobbled on after her companions, leaving the man to slink away white to the lips with terror. He had been a Christian and knew something of Anna and of this "gift of prophecy."

The path of these strangers led them past the fountain, where Rachel and Nehushta rose to greet them as they came.

"Peace be with you," said Rachel.

"In the name of Christ, peace," they answered, and passed on towards the arches where the other captives were gathered. Last of all, at some distance behind the rest, came the white-haired woman, leaning on her staff.

As she approached, Rachel turned to repeat her salutation, then uttered a little cry and said:

"Mother Anna, do you not know me, Rachel, the daughter of Benoni?"

"Rachel!" she answered, starting. "Alas! child, how came you here?"

"By the paths that we Christians have to tread, mother," said Rachel, sadly. "But sit; you are weary. Nou, help her."

Anna nodded, and slowly, for her limbs were stiff, sank down on to the step of the fountain.

"Give me to drink, child," she said, "for I have been brought upon a mule from Tyre, and am athirst."

Rachel made her hands into a cup, for she had no other, and held water to Anna's lips, which she drank greedily, emptying them many times.

"For this refreshment, God be praised. What said you? The daughter of Benoni a Christian! Well, even here and now, for that God be praised also. Strange that I should not have heard of it; but I have been in Jerusalem these two years, and was brought back to Tyre last Sabbath as a prisoner."

"Yes, Mother, and since then I have become both wife and widow."

"Whom did you marry, child?"

"Demas, the merchant. They killed him in the amphitheatre yonder at Berytus six months ago," and the poor woman began to sob.

"I heard of his end," replied Anna. "It was a good and noble one, and his soul rests in Heaven. He would not fight with the gladiators, so he was beheaded by order of Agrippa. But cease weeping, child, and tell me your story. We have little time for tears, who, perhaps, soon will have done with them."

Rachel dried her eyes.

"It is short and sad," she said. "Demas and I met often and learned to love each other. My father was no friend to him, for they were rivals in trade, but in those days knowing no better, Demas followed the faith of the Jews; therefore, because he was rich my father consented to our marriage, and they became partners in their business. Afterwards, within a month indeed, the Apostles came to Tyre, and we attended their preaching—at first, because we were curious to learn the truth of this new faith against which my father railed, for, as you know, he is of the strictest sect of the Jews; and then, because our hearts were touched. So in the end we believed, and were baptised, both on one night, by the very hand of the brother of the Lord. The holy Apostles departed, blessing us before they went, and Demas, who would play no double part, told my father of what we had done. Oh! mother, it was awful to see. He raved, shouted and cursed us in his rage, blaspheming Him we worship. More, woe is me that I should have to tell it: When we refused to become apostates he denounced us to the priests, and the priests denounced us to the Romans, and we were seized and thrown into prison; but my husband's wealth, most of it except that which the priests and Romans stole, stayed with my father. For many months we were held in prison here in Caesarea; then they took my husband to Berytus, to be trained as a gladiator, and murdered him. Here I have stayed since with this beloved servant, Nehushta, who also became a Christian and shared our fate, and now, by the decree of Agrippa, it is my turn and hers to die to-day."

"Child, you should not weep for that; nay, you should be glad who at once will find your husband and your Saviour."

"Mother, I am glad; but, you see my state. It is for the child's sake I weep, that now never will be born. Had it won life even for an hour all of us would have dwelt together in bliss until eternity. But it cannot be—it cannot be."

Anna looked at her with her piercing eyes.

"Have you, then, also the gift of prophecy, child, who are so young a member of the Church, that you dare to say that this or that cannot be? The future is in the hand of God. King Agrippa, your father, the Romans, the cruel Jews, those lions that roar yonder, and we who are doomed to feed them, are all in the hand of God, and that which He wills shall befall, and no other thing. Therefore, let us praise Him and rejoice, and take no thought for the morrow, unless it be to pray that we may die and go hence to our Master, rather than live on in doubts and terrors and tribulations."

"You are right, mother," answered Rachel, "and I will try to be brave, whatever may befall; but my state makes me feeble. The spirit, truly, is willing, but oh! the flesh is weak. Listen, they call us to partake of the Sacrament of the Lord—our last on earth"; and rising, she began to walk towards the arches.

Nehushta stayed to help Anna to her feet. When she judged her mistress to be out of hearing she leaned down and whispered:

"Mother, you have the gift; it is known throughout the Church. Tell me, will the child be born?"

The old woman fixed her eyes upon the heavens, then answered, slowly:

"The child will be born and live out its life, and I think that none of us are doomed to die this day by the jaws of lions, though some of us may die in another fashion. But I think also that your mistress goes very shortly to join her husband. Therefore it was that I showed her nothing of what came into my mind."

"Then it is best that I should die also, and die I will."

"Wherefore?"

"Because I go to wait upon my mistress?"

"Nay, Nehushta," answered Anna, sternly, "you stay to guard her child, whereof when all these earthly things are done you must give account to her."



CHAPTER II

THE VOICE OF A GOD

Of all the civilisations whose records lie open to the student, that of Rome is surely one of the most wonderful. Nowhere, not even in old Mexico, was high culture so completely wedded to the lowest barbarism. Intellect Rome had in plenty; the noblest efforts of her genius are scarcely to be surpassed; her law is the foundation of the best of our codes of jurisprudence; art she borrowed but appreciated; her military system is still the wonder of the world; her great men remain great among a multitude of subsequent competitors. And yet how pitiless she was! What a tigress! Amid all the ruins of her cities we find none of a hospital, none, I believe, of an orphan school in an age that made many orphans. The pious aspirations and efforts of individuals seem never to have touched the conscience of the people. Rome incarnate had no conscience; she was a lustful, devouring beast, made more bestial by her intelligence and splendour.

King Agrippa in practice was a Roman. Rome was his model, her ideals were his ideals. Therefore he built amphitheatres in which men were butchered, to the exquisite delight of vast audiences. Therefore, also, without the excuse of any conscientious motive, however insufficient or unsatisfactory, he persecuted the weak because they were weak and their sufferings would give pleasure to the strong or to those who chanced to be the majority of the moment.

The season being hot it was arranged that the great games in honour of the safety of Caesar, should open each day at dawn and come to an end an hour before noon. Therefore from midnight onwards crowds of spectators poured into the amphitheatre, which, although it would seat over twenty thousand, was not large enough to contain them all. An hour before the dawn the place was full, and already late comers were turned back from its gates. The only empty spaces were those reserved for the king, his royal guests, the rulers of the city, with other distinguished personages, and for the Christian company of old men, women and children destined to the lions, who, it was arranged, were to sit in full view of the audience until the time came for them to take their share in the spectacle.

When Rachel joined the other captives she found that a long rough table had been set beneath the arcades, and on it at intervals, pieces of bread and cups and vases containing wine of the country that had been purchased at a great price from the guards. Round this table the elders or the infirm among the company were seated on a bench, while the rest of the number, for whom there was not room, stood behind them. At its head was an old man, a bishop among the Christians, one of the five hundred who had seen the risen Lord and received baptism from the hands of the Beloved Disciple. For some years he had been spared by the persecutors of the infant Church on account of his age, dignity, and good repute, but now at last fate seemed to have overtaken him.

The service was held; the bread and wine, mixed with water, were consecrated with the same texts by which they are blessed to-day, only the prayers were extempore. When all had eaten from the platters and drunk from the rude cups, the bishop gave his blessing to the community. Then he addressed them. This, he told them, was an occasion of peculiar joy, a love-feast indeed, since all they who partook of it were about to lay down the burden of the flesh and, their labours and sorrows ended, to depart into bliss eternal. He called to their memory the supper of the Passover which had taken place within the lifetime of many of them, when the Author and Finisher of their faith had declared to the disciples that He would drink no more wine till He drank it new with them in His kingdom. Such a feast it was that lay spread before them this night. Let them be thankful for it. Let them not quail in the hour of trial. The fangs of the savage beasts, the shouts of the still more savage spectators, the agony of the quivering flesh, the last terror of their departing, what were these? Soon, very soon, they would be done; the spears of the soldiers would despatch the injured, and those among them whom it was ordained should escape, would be set free by the command of the representative of Caesar, that they might prosecute the work till the hour came for them to pass on the torch of redemption to other hands. Let them rejoice, therefore, and be very thankful, and walk to the sacrifice as to a wedding feast. "Do you not rejoice, my brethren?" he asked. With one voice they answered, "We rejoice!" Yes, even the children answered thus.

Then they prayed again, and again with uplifted hands the old man blessed them in the holy Triune Name.

Scarcely had this service, as solemn as it was simple, been brought to an end when the head jailer, whose blasphemous jocosity since his reproof by Anna was replaced by a mien of sullen venom, came forward and commanded the whole band to march to the amphitheatre. Accordingly, two by two, the bishop leading the way with the sainted woman Anna, they walked to the gates. Here a guard of soldiers was waiting to receive them, and under their escort they threaded the narrow, darkling streets till they came to that door of the amphitheatre which was used by those who were to take part in the games. Now, at a word from the bishop, they began to chant a solemn hymn, and singing thus, were thrust along the passages to the place prepared for them. This was not, as they expected, a prison at the back of the amphitheatre, but, as has been said, a spot between the enclosing wall and the podium, raised a little above the level of the arena. Here, on the eastern side of the building, they were to sit till their turn came to be driven by the guards through a little wicket-gate into the arena, where the starving beasts of prey would be loosed upon them.

It was now the hour before sunrise, and the moon having set, the vast theatre was plunged in gloom, relieved only here and there by stray torches and cressets of fire burning upon either side of the gorgeous, but as yet unoccupied, throne of Agrippa. This gloom seemed to oppress the audience with which the place was crowded; at any rate none of them shouted or sang, or even spoke loudly. They addressed each other in muffled tones, with the result that the air seemed to be full of mysterious whisperings. Had this poor band of condemned Christians entered the theatre in daylight, they would have been greeted with ironical cries and tauntings of "Dogs' meat!" and with requests that they should work a miracle and let the people see them rise again from the bellies of the lions. But now, as their solemn song broke upon the silence, it was answered only by one great murmur, which seemed to shape itself to the words, "the Christians! The doomed Christians!"

By the light of a single torch the band took their places. Then once more they sang, and in that chastening hour the audience listened with attention, almost with respect. Their chant finished, the bishop stood up, and, moved thereto by some inspiration, began to address the mighty throng, whom he could not see, and who could not see him. Strangely enough they hearkened to him, perhaps because his speech served to while away the weary time of waiting.

"Men and brethren," he began, in his thin, piercing notes, "princes, lords, peoples, Romans, Jews, Syrians, Greeks, citizens of Idumaea, of Egypt, and of all nations here gathered, hearken to the words of an old man destined and glad to die. Listen, if it be your pleasure, to the story of One whom some of you saw crucified under Pontius Pilate, since to know the truth of that matter can at least do you no hurt."

"Be silent!" cried a voice, that of the renegade jailer, "and cease preaching your accursed faith!"

"Let him alone," answered other voices. "We will hear this story of his. We say—let him alone."

Thus encouraged the old man spoke on with an eloquence so simple and yet so touching, with a wisdom so deep, that for full fifteen minutes none cared even to interrupt him. Then a far-away listener cried:

"Why must these people die who are better than we?"

"Friend," answered the bishop, in ringing tones, which in that heavy silence seemed to search out even the recesses of the great and crowded place, "we must die because it is the will of King Agrippa, to whom God has given power to destroy us. Mourn not for us because we perish cruelly, since this is the day of our true birth, but mourn for King Agrippa, at whose hands our blood will be required, and mourn, mourn for yourselves, O people. The death that is near to us perchance is nearer still to some of you; and how will you awaken who perish in your sins? What if the sword of God should empty yonder throne? What if the voice of God should call on him who fills it to make answer of his deeds? Soon or late, O people, it will call on him and you to pass hence, some naturally in your age, others by the sharp and dreadful roads of sword, pestilence or famine. Already those woes which He whom you crucified foretold, knock at your door, and within a few short years not one of you who crowd this place in thousands will draw the breath of life. Nothing will remain of you on earth save the fruit of those deeds which you have done—these and your bones, no more. Repent you, therefore, repent while there is time; for I, whom you have doomed, I am bidden to declare that judgment is at hand. Yes, even now, although you see him not, the Angel of the Lord hangs over you and writes your names within his book. Now while there is time I would pray for you and for your king. Farewell."

As he spoke those words "the Angel of the Lord hangs over you," so great was the preacher's power, and in that weary darkness so sharply had he touched the imagination of his strange audience, that with a sound like to the stir of rustling trees, thousands of faces were turned upwards, as though in search of that dread messenger.

"Look, look!" screamed a hundred voices, while dim arms pointed to some noiseless thing that floated high above them against the background of the sky, which grew grey with the coming dawn. It appeared and disappeared, appeared again, then seemed to pass downward in the direction of Agrippa's throne, and vanished.

"It is that magician's angel," cried one, and the multitudes groaned.

"Fool," said another, "it was but a bird."

"Then for Agrippa's sake," shrilled a new voice, "the gods send that it was not an owl."

Thereat some laughed, but the most were silent. They knew the story of King Agrippa and the owl, and how it had been foretold that this spirit in the form of a bird would appear to him again in the hour of his death, as it had appeared to him in the hour of his triumph.[*]

[*] See Josephus, "Antiquities of the Jews," Book XVII., Chap. VI., Sec. 7; and Book XIX., Chap. VIII., Sec. 2.

Just then from the palace to the north arose a sound of the blare of trumpets. Now a herald, speaking on the summit of the great eastern tower, called out that it was dawn above the mountains, and that King Agrippa came with all his company, whereon the preaching of the old Christian and his tale of a watching Vengeance were instantly forgotten. Presently the glad, fierce notes of the trumpets drew nearer, and in the grey of the daybreak, through the great bronze gates of the Triumphal Way that were thrown open to greet him, advanced Agrippa, wonderfully attired and preceded by his legionaries. At his right walked Vibius Marsus, the Roman President of Syria, and on his left Antiochus, King of Commagena, while after him followed other kings, princes, and great men of his own and foreign lands.

Agrippa mounted his golden throne while the multitude roared a welcome, and his company were seated around and behind him according to their degree.

Once more the trumpets sounded, and the gladiators of different arms, headed by the equites who fought on horseback, numbering in all more than five hundred men, were formed up in the arena for the preliminary march past—the salutation of those about to die to their emperor and lord. Now, that they also might take their part in the spectacle, the band of Christian martyrs were thrust through the door in the podium, and to make them seem as many as possible in number, marshalled two by two.

Then the march past began. Troop by troop, arrayed in their shining armour and armed, each of them, with his own familiar weapon, the gladiators halted in front of Agrippa's throne, giving to him the accustomed salutation of "Hail, King, we who are about to die, salute thee," to be rewarded with a royal smile and the shouts of the approving audience. Last of all came the Christians, a motley, wretched-looking group, made up of old men, terrified children clinging to their mothers, and ill-clad, dishevelled women. At the pitiful sight, that very mob which a few short minutes before had hung upon the words of the bishop, their leader, now, as they watched them hobbling round the arena in the clear, low light of the dawning, burst into peals of laughter and called out that each of them should be made to lead his lion. Quite heedless of these scoffs and taunts, they trudged on through the white sand that soon would be so red, until they came opposite to the throne.

"Salute!" roared the audience.

The bishop held up his hand and all were silent. Then, in the thin voice with which they had become familiar, he said:

"King, we who are about to die—forgive thee. May God do likewise."

Now the multitude ceased laughing, and with an impatient gesture, Agrippa motioned to the martyrs to pass on. This they did humbly; but Anna, being old, lame and weary, could not walk so fast as her companions. Alone she reached the saluting-place after all had left it, and halted there.

"Forward!" cried the officers. But she did not move nor did she speak. Only leaning on her staff she looked steadily up at the face of the king Agrippa. Some impulse seemed to draw his eyes to hers. They met, and it was noted that he turned pale. Then straightening herself with difficulty upon her tottering feet, Anna raised her staff and pointed with it to the golden canopy above the head of Herod. All stared upward, but saw nothing, for the canopy was still in the shadow of the velarium which covered all the outer edge of the cavea, leaving the centre open to the sky. It would appear, however, that Agrippa did see something, for he who had risen to declare the games open, suddenly sank back upon his throne, and remained thus lost in thought. Then Anna limped forward to join her company, who once more were driven through the little gate in the wall of the arena.

For a second time, with an effort, Agrippa lifted himself from his throne. As he rose the first level rays of sunrise struck full upon him. He was a tall and noble-looking man, and his dress was glorious. To the thousands who gazed upon him from the shadow, set in that point of burning light he seemed to be clothed in a garment of glittering silver. Silver was his crown, silver his vest, silver the wide robe that flowed from his shoulders to the ground.

"In the name of Caesar, to the glory of Caesar, I declare these games open!" he cried.

Then, as though moved by a sudden impulse, all the multitude rose shouting: "The voice of a god! The voice of a god! The voice of the god Agrippa!"

Nor did Agrippa say them nay; the glory of such worship thundered at him from twenty thousand throats made him drunken. There for a while he stood, the new-born sunlight playing upon his splendid form, while the multitude roared his name, proclaiming it divine. His nostrils spread to inhale this incense of adoration, his eyes flashed and slowly he waved his arms, as though in benediction of his worshippers. Perchance there rose before his mind a vision of the wondrous event whereby he, the scorned and penniless outcast, had been lifted to this giddy pinnacle of power. Perchance for a moment he believed that he was indeed divine, that nothing less than the blood and right of godhead could thus have exalted him. At least he stood there, denying naught, while the people adored him as Jehovah is adored of the Jews and Christ is adored of the Christians.

Then of a sudden smote the Angel of the Lord. Of a sudden intolerable pain seized upon his vitals, and Herod remembered that he was but mortal flesh, and knew that death was near.

"Alas!" he cried, "I am no god, but a man, and even now the common fate of man is on me."

As he spoke a great white owl slid from the roof of the canopy above him and vanished through the unroofed centre of the cavea.

"Look! look! my people!" he cried again, "the spirit that brought me good fortune leaves me now, and I die, my people, I die!" Then, sinking upon his throne, he who a moment gone had received the worship of a god, writhed there in agony and wept. Yes, Herod wept.

Attendants ran to him and lifted him in their arms.

"Take me hence to die," he moaned. Now a herald cried:

"The king is smitten with a sore sickness, and the games are closed. To your homes, O people."

For a while the multitude sat silent, for they were fear-stricken. Then a murmur rose among them that spread and swelled till it became a roar.

"The Christians! The Christians! They prophesied the evil. They have bewitched the king. They are wizards. Kill them, kill them, kill them!"

Instantly, like waves pouring in from every side, hundreds and thousands of men began to flow towards that place where the martyrs sat. The walls and palisades were high. Sweeping aside the guards, they surged against them like water against a rock; but climb they could not. Those in front began to scream, those behind pressed on. Some fell and were trodden underfoot, others clambered upon their bodies, in turn to fall and be trodden underfoot.

"Our death is upon us!" cried one of the Nazarenes.

"Nay, life remains to us," answered Nehushta. "Follow me, all of you, for I know the road," and, seizing Rachel about the middle, she began to drag her towards a little door. It was unlocked and guarded by one man only, the apostate jailer Rufus.

"Stand back!" he cried, lifting his spear.

Nehushta made no answer, only drawing a dagger from her robe, she fell upon the ground, then of a sudden rose again beneath his guard. The knife flashed and went home to the hilt. Down fell the man screaming for help and mercy, and there, in the narrow way, his spirit was stamped out of him. Beyond lay the broad passage of the vomitorium. They gained it, and in an instant were mixed with the thousands who sought to escape the panic. Some perished, some were swept onwards, among them Nehushta and Rachel. Thrice they nearly fell, but the fierce strength of the Libyan saved her mistress, till at length they found themselves on the broad terrace facing the seashore.

"Whither now?" gasped Rachel.

"Where shall I lead you?" answered Nehushta. "Do not stay. Be swift."

"But the others?" said Rachel, glancing back at the fighting, trampling, yelling mob.

"God guard them! We cannot."

"Leave me," moaned her mistress. "Save yourself, Nou; I am spent," and she sank down to her knees.

"But I am still strong," muttered Nehushta, and lifting the swooning woman in her sinewy arms, she fled on towards the port, crying, "Way, way for my lady, the noble Roman, who has swooned!"

And the multitude made way.



CHAPTER III

THE GRAIN STORE

Having passed the outer terraces of the amphitheatre in safety, Nehushta turned down a side street, and paused in the shadow of the wall to think what she should do. So far they were safe; but even if her strength would stand the strain, it seemed impossible that she should carry her mistress through the crowded city and avoid recapture. For some months they had both of them been prisoners, and as it was the custom of the inhabitants of Caesarea, when they had nothing else to do, to come to the gates of their jail, and, through the bars, to study those within, or even, by permission of the guards, to walk among them, their appearance was known to many. Doubtless, so soon as the excitement caused by the illness of the king had subsided, soldiers would be sent to hunt down the fugitives who had escaped from the amphitheatre. More especially would they search for her, Nehushta, and her mistress, since it would be known that one of them had stabbed the warden of the gate, a crime for which they must expect to die by torture. Also—where could they go who had no friends, since all Christians had been expelled the city?

No, there was but one chance for them—to conceal themselves.

Nehushta looked round her for a hiding-place, and in this matter, as in others on that day, fortune favoured them. This street in the old days, when Caesarea was called Strato's Tower, had been built upon an inner wall of the city, now long dismantled. At a distance of a few yards from where Nehushta had stopped stood an ancient gateway, unused save at times by beggars who slept under it, which led nowhere, for the outer arch of it was bricked up. Into this gateway Nehushta bore her mistress unobserved, to find to her relief that it was quite untenanted, though a still smouldering fire and a broken amphora containing clean water showed her that folk had slept there who could find no better lodging. So far so good; but here it would be scarcely safe to hide, as the tenants or others might come back. Nehushta looked around. In the thick wall was a little archway, beneath which commenced a stair. Setting Rachel on the ground, she ran up it, lightly as a cat. At the top of thirty steps, many of them broken, she found an old and massive door. With a sigh of disappointment, the Libyan turned to descend again; then, by an afterthought, pushed at the door. To her surprise it stirred. Again she pushed, and it swung open. Within was a large chamber, lighted by loopholes pierced in the thickness of the wall, for the use of archers. Now, however, it served no military purpose, but was used as a storehouse by a merchant of grain, for there in a corner lay a heap of many measures of barley, and strewn about the floor were sacks of skin and other articles.

Nehushta examined the room. No hiding-place could be better—unless the merchant chanced to come to visit his store. Well, that must be risked. Down she sped, and with much toil and difficulty carried her still swooning mistress up the steps and into the chamber, where she laid her on a heap of sacks.

Again, by an afterthought, she ventured to descend, this time to fetch the broken jar of water. Then she closed the door, setting it fast with a piece of wood, and began to chafe Rachel's hands and to sprinkle her face from the jar. Presently the dark eyes opened and her mistress sat up.

"Is it over, and is this Paradise?" she murmured.

"I should not call the place by that name, lady," answered Nehushta, drily, "though perhaps, in contrast with the hell that we have left, some might think it so. Drink!" and she held the water to her lips.

Rachel obeyed her eagerly. "Oh! it is good," she said. "But how came we here out of that rushing crowd?"

Before she answered, muttering "After the mistress, the maid," Nehushta swallowed a deep draught of water in her turn, which, indeed, she needed sorely. Then she told her all.

"Oh! Nou," said Rachel, "how strong and brave you are! But for you I should be dead."

"But for God, you mean, mistress, for I hold that He sent that knife-point home."

"Did you kill the man?" asked Rachel.

"I think that he died by a dagger-thrust as Anna foretold," she answered evasively; "and that reminds me that I had better clean the knife, since blood on the blade is evidence against its owner." Then drawing the dagger from its hiding-place she rubbed it with dust, which she took from a loop-hole, and polished it bright with a piece of hide.

Scarcely was this task accomplished to Nehushta's satisfaction when her quick ears caught a sound.

"For your life, be silent," she whispered, and laid her face sideways to a crack in the cement floor and listened. Well might she listen, for below were three soldiers searching for her and her mistress.

"The old fellow swore that he saw a Libyan woman carrying a lady down this street," said one of them, the petty officer in charge, to his companion, "and there was but a single brown-skin in the lot; so if they aren't here I don't know where they can be."

"Well," grumbled one of the soldiers, "this place is as empty as a drum, so we may as well be going. There'll be fun presently which I don't want to miss."

"It was the black woman who knifed our friend Rufus, wasn't it—in the theatre there?" asked the third soldier.

"They say so; but as he was trodden as flat as a roof-board, and they had to take him up in pieces, it is difficult to know the truth of that matter. Anyhow his mates are anxious to get the lady, and I should be sorry to die as she will, when they do, or her mistress either. They have leave to finish them in their own fashion."

"Hadn't we best be going?" said the first soldier, who evidently was anxious to keep some appointment.

"Hullo!" exclaimed the second, a sharp-eyed fellow, "there's a stair; we had better just look up it."

"Not much use," answered the officer. "That old thief Amram, the corn-merchant, has a store there, and he isn't one of the sort to leave it unlocked. Still, just go and see."

Then came the sound of footsteps on the stair, and presently a man could be heard fumbling at the further side of the door. Rachel shut her eyes and prayed; Nehushta, drawing the knife from her bosom, crept towards the doorway like a tigress, and placed her left hand on the stick that held it shut. Well it was that she did so, since presently the soldier gave a savage push that might easily have caused the wood to slip on the cemented floor. Now, satisfied that it was really locked, he turned and went down the steps.

With a gasp of relief Nehushta once more set her ear to the crack.

"It's fast enough," reported the man, "but perhaps it might be as well to get the key from Amram and have a look."

"Friend," said the officer, "I think that you must be in love with this black lady; or is it her mistress whom you admire? I shall recommend you for the post of Christian-catcher to the cohort. Now we'll try that house at the corner, and if they are not there, I am off to the palace to see how his godship is getting on with that stomach-ache and whether it has moved him to order payment of our arrears. If he hasn't, I tell you flatly that I mean to help myself to something, and so do the rest of the lads, who are mad at the stopping of the games."

"It would be much better to get that key from Amram and have a look upstairs," put in number two soldier reflectively.

"Then go to Amram, or to Pluto, and ask for the key of Hades for aught I care!" replied his superior with irritation. "He lives about a league off at the other end of the town."

"I do not wish for the walk," said the conscientious soldier; "but as we are searching for these escaped Christians, by your leave, I do think it would have been much better to have got that key from Amram and peeped into the chamber upstairs."

Thereon the temper of the officer, already ruffled by the events of the morning and the long watch of the preceding night, gave way, and he departed, consigning the Christians, escaped or recaptured, Amram and the key, his subordinate, and even the royal Agrippa who did not pay his debts, to every infernal god of every religion with which he was acquainted.

Nehushta lifted her head from the floor.

"Thanks be to God! They are gone," she said.

"But, Nou, will they not come back? Oh! I fear lest they should come back."

"I think not. That sharp-nosed rat has made the other angry, and I believe that he will find him some harder task than the seeking of a key from Amram. Still, there is danger that this Amram may appear himself to visit his store, for in these days of festival he is sure to be selling grain to the bakers."

Scarcely were the words out of her mouth when a key rattled, the door was pushed sharply, and the piece of wood slipped and fell. Then the hinges creaked, and Amram—none other—entered, and, closing the door behind him, locked it, leaving the key in the lock.

Amram was a shrewd-faced, middle-aged Phoenician and, like most Phoenicians of that day, a successful trader, this corn-store representing only one branch of his business. For the rest he was clad in a quiet-coloured robe and cap, and to all appearance unarmed.

Having locked the door, he walked to a little table, beneath which stood a box containing his tablets whereon were entered the amounts of corn bought and delivered, to come face to face with Nehushta. Instantly she slid between him and the door.

"Who in the name of Moloch are you?" he asked, stepping back astonished, to perceive as he did so, Rachel seated on the heap of sacks; "and you," he added. "Are you spirits, thieves, ladies in search of a lodging, or—perchance those two Christians whom the soldiers are looking for in yonder house?"

"We are the two Christians," said Rachel desperately. "We fled from the amphitheatre, and have taken refuge here, where they nearly found us."

"This," said Amram solemnly, "comes of not locking one's office. Do not misunderstand me; it was no fault of mine. A certain apprentice is to blame, to whom I shall have a word to say. In fact, I think that I will say it at once," and he stepped towards the door.

"Indeed you will not," interrupted Nehushta.

"And pray, my Libyan friend, how will you prevent me?"

"My putting a knife into your gizzard, as I did through that of the renegade Rufus an hour or two ago! Ah! I see you have heard the story."

Amram considered, then replied:

"And what if I also have a knife?"

"In that case," said Nehushta, "draw it, and we will see which is the better, man or woman. Merchant, your weapon is your pen. You have not a chance with me, an Arab of Libya, and you know it."

"Yes," answered Amram, "I think I do; you desert folk are so reckless and athletic. Also, to be frank, as you may have guessed, I am unarmed. Now, what do you propose?"

"I propose that you get us safely out of Caesarea, or, if you prefer it, that we shall all die here in this grain-store, for, by whatever god you worship, Phoenician, before a hand is laid upon my mistress or me, this knife goes through your heart. I owe no love to your people, who bought me, a king's daughter, as a slave, and I shall be quite happy to close my account with one of them. Do you understand?"

"Perfectly, perfectly. Why show such temper? The affair is one of business; let us discuss it in a business spirit. You wish to escape from Caesarea; I wish you to escape from my grain-store. Let me go out and arrange the matter."

"On a plank; not otherwise unless we accompany you," answered Nehushta. "Man, why do you waste words with us. Listen. This lady is the only child of Benoni, the great merchant of Tyre. Doubtless you know him?"

"To my cost," replied Amram, with a bow. "Three times has he overreached me in various bargains."

"Very well; then you know also that he is rich and will pay him liberally who rescues his daughter from great peril."

"He might do so, but I am not sure."

"I am sure," answered Nehushta, "and for this service my mistress here will give you a bill for any reasonable sum drawn upon her father."

"Yes, but the question is—will he honour it? Benoni is a prejudiced man, a very prejudiced man, a Jew of the Jew, who—does not like Christians."

"I think that he will honour it, I believe that he will honour it; but that risk is yours. See here, merchant, a doubtful draft is better than a slit throat."

"Quite so. The argument is excellent. But you desire to escape. If you keep me here, how can I arrange the matter?"

"That is for you to consider. You do not leave this place except in our company, and then at the first sign of danger I drive this knife home between your shoulders. Meanwhile my mistress is ready to sign any moderate draft upon her father."

"It is not necessary. Under the circumstances I think that I will trust to the generosity of my fellow trader Benoni. Meanwhile I assure you that nothing will give me greater happiness than to fall in with your views. Believe me, I have no prejudice against Christians, since those of them whom I have met were always honest and paid their debts in full. I do not wish to see you or your mistress eaten by lions or tortured. I shall be very glad to think that you are following the maxims of your peculiar faith to an extreme old age, anywhere, outside the limits of my grain-store. The question is, how can I help you do this? At present I see no way."

"The question is—how will you manage to keep your life in you over the next twelve hours?" answered Nehushta grimly. "Therefore I advise you to find a way"; and to emphasise her words she turned, and, having made sure that the door was locked, slipped its key into the bosom of her dress.

Amram stared at her in undisguised admiration. "I would that I were unmarried," he said, "which is not the case," and he sighed; "for then, upon my word, I should be inclined to make a certain proposal to you——"

"Nehushta—that is my name——"

"Nehushta—exactly. Well, it is out of the question."

"Quite."

"Therefore I have a suggestion to make. To-night a ship of mine sails for Tyre. Will you honour me by accepting a passage on her?"

"Certainly," answered Nehushta, "provided that you accompany us."

"It was not my intention to go to Tyre this voyage."

"Then your intention can be changed. Look you, we are desperate, and our lives are at stake. Your life is also at stake, and I swear to you, by the Holy One we worship, that before any harm comes to my mistress you shall die. Then what will your wealth and your schemes avail you in the grave? It is a little thing we ask of you—to help two innocent people to escape from this accursed city. Will you grant it? Or shall I put this dagger through your throat? Answer, and at once, or I strike and bury you in your own corn."

Even in that light Amram turned visibly paler. "I accept your terms," he said. "At nightfall I will conduct you to the ship, which sails two hours after sunset with the evening wind. I will accompany you to Tyre and deliver the lady over to her father, trusting to his liberality for my reward. Meanwhile, this place is hot. That ladder leads to the roof, which is parapeted, so that those sitting or even standing there, cannot be seen. Shall we ascend?"

"If you go first; and remember, should you attempt to call out, my knife is always ready."

"Of that I am quite aware—you have said so several times. I have passed my words, and I do not go back upon my bargains. The stars are with you, and, come what may, I obey them."

Accordingly they ascended to the roof, Amram going first, Nehushta following him, and Rachel bringing up the rear. On it, projecting inward from the parapet, was a sloping shelter once made use of by the look-out sentry in bad or hot weather. The change from the stifling store below with its stench of ill-cured hides, to this lofty, shaded spot, where the air moved freely, was so pleasant to Rachel, outworn as she was with all she had gone through, that presently she fell asleep, not to wake again till evening. Nehushta, however, who did not go to sleep, and Amram, employed themselves in watching the events that passed in the city below. From this height they could see the great square surrounding the palace, and the strange scenes being enacted therein. It was crowded by thousands of people, for the most part seated on the ground, clad in garments of sack-cloth and throwing dust upon the heads of themselves, their wives and children. From all this multitude a voice of supplication rose to heaven, which, even at that distance, reached the ears of Nehushta and her companion in a murmur of sound, constant and confused.

"They pray that the king may live," said Amram.

"And I pray that he may die," answered Nehushta.

The merchant shrugged his shoulders. "I care nothing either way, provided that the peace is not disturbed to the injury of trade. On the whole, however, he is a good king who causes money to be spent, which is what kings are for—in Judaea—where they are but feathers puffed up by the breath of Caesar, to fall if he cease to blow. But look!"

As he spoke, a figure appeared upon the steps of the palace who made some communication to the crowd, whereon a great wail went up to the very skies.

"You have your wish," said Amram; "Herod is dead or dying, and now, I suppose, as his son is but a child, that we shall be ruled by some accursed thief of a Roman procurator with a pocket like a sack without a bottom. Surely that old bishop of yours who preached in the amphitheatre this morning, must have had a hint of what was coming, from his familiar spirit; or perhaps he saw the owl and guessed its errand. Moreover, I think that troubles are brewing for others besides Herod, since the old man said as much.

"What became of him and the rest?" asked Nehushta.

"Oh! a few were trampled to death, and others the Jews stirred up the mob to stone, saying that they had bewitched the king, which they, who were disappointed of the games, did gladly. Some, however, are said to have escaped, and, like yourselves, lie in hiding."

Nehushta glanced at her mistress, now fast asleep, her pale face resting on her arm.

"The world is hard—for Christians," she said.

"Friend, it is hard for all, as, were I to tell you my own story, even you would admit," and he sighed. "At least you Christians believe in something beyond," he went on; "for you death is but a bridge leading to a glorious city, and I trust that you may be right. Is not your mistress delicate?"

Nehushta nodded.

"She was never very strong, and sorrow has done its work with her. They killed her husband at Berytus yonder, and—her trouble is very near."

"Yes, yes, I heard that story, also that his blood is on the hands of her own father, Benoni. Ah! who is so cruel as a bigot Jew? Not we Phoenicians even, of whom they say such evil. Once I had a daughter"—here his hard face softened—"but let be, let be! Look you, the risk is great, but what I can do I will do to save her, and you also, friend, since, Libyan or no, you are a faithful woman. Nay, do not doubt me. I have given my word, and if I break it willingly, then may I perish and be devoured of dogs. My ship is small and undecked. In that she shall not sail, but a big galley weighs for Alexandria to-night, calling at Apollonia and Joppa, and in it I will take you passages, saying that the lady is a relative of mine and that you are her slave. This is my advice to you—that you go straight to Egypt, where there are many Christians who will protect you for a while. Thence your mistress can write to her father, and if he will receiver her, return. If not, at least she will be safe, since no writ of Herod runs in Alexandria, and there they do not love the Jews."

"Your counsel seems good," said Nehushta, "if she will consent to it."

"She must consent who, indeed, is in no case to make other plans. Now let me go. Before nightfall I will return again with food and clothing, and lead you to the ship."

Nehushta hesitated.

"I say to you, do not fear. Will you not trust me?"

"Yes," answered Nehushta, "because I must. Nay, the words are not kind, but we are sadly placed, and it is strange to find a true friend in one whom I have threatened with a knife."

"I understand," said Amram gravely. "Let the issue prove me. Now descend that you may lock the door behind me. When I return I will stand in the open space yonder with a slave, making pretence to re-bind a burst bundle of merchandise. Then come down and admit me without fear."

When the Phoenician had gone Nehushta sat by her sleeping mistress, and waited with an anxious heart. Had she done wisely? Would Amram betray them and send soldiers to conduct them, not to the ship, but to some dreadful death? Well, if so, at least she would have time to kill her mistress and herself, and thus escape the cruelties of men. Meanwhile she could only pray; and pray she did in her fierce, half-savage fashion, never for herself, but for her mistress whom she loved, and for the child that, she remembered thankfully, Anna had foretold would be born and live out its life. Then she remembered also that this same holy woman had said that its mother's hours would be few, and at the thought Nehushta wept.



CHAPTER IV

THE BIRTH OF MIRIAM

The time passed slowly, but none came to disturb them. Three hours after noon Rachel awoke, refreshed but hungry, and Nehushta had no food to give her except raw grain, from which she turned. Clearly and in few words she told her mistress all that had passed, asking her consent to the plan.

"It seems good as another," said Rachel with a little sigh, "and I thank you for making it, Nou, and the Phoenician, if he is a true man. Also I do not desire to meet my father—at least, for many years. How can I, seeing the evil which he has brought upon me?"

"Do not speak of that," interrupted Nehushta hastily, and for a long while they were silent.

It was an hour before sunset, or a little less, when at length Nehushta saw two persons walk on to the patch of open ground which she watched continually—Amram and a slave who bore a bundle on his head. Just then the rope which bound this bundle seemed to come loose; at least, at his master's command, the man set it down and they began to retie it, then advanced slowly towards the archway. Now Nehushta descended, unlocked the door and admitted Amram, who carried the bundle.

"Where is the slave?" she asked.

"Have no fear, friend; he is trusty and watches without, not knowing why. Come, you must both of you be hungry, and I have food. Help me loose this cord."

Presently the package was undone, and within it appeared, first, two flagons of old wine, then meats more tasty then Nehushta had seen for months, then rich cloaks and other garments made in the Phoenician fashion, and a robe of white with coloured edges, such as was worn by the body-slaves of the wealthy among that people. Lastly—and this Amram produced from his own person—there was a purse of gold, enough to support them for many weeks. Nehushta thanked him with her eyes, and was about to speak.

"There, say nothing," he interrupted. "I passed my word, and I have kept it, that is all. Also on this money I shall charge interest, and your mistress can repay it in happier days. Now listen: I have taken the passages, and an hour after sunset we will go aboard. Only I warn you, do not let it be known that you are escaped Christians, for the seamen think that such folk bring them bad luck. Come, help me carry the food and wine. After you have eaten you can both of you retire here and robe yourselves."

Presently they were on the roof.

"Lady," said Nehushta, "we did well to put faith in this man. He has come back, and see what he has brought us."

"The blessing of God be on you, sir, who help the helpless!" exclaimed Rachel, looking hungrily at the tempting meats which she so sorely needed.

"Drink," said Amram cheerfully, as he poured wine and water into a cup; "it will hearten you, and your faith does not forbid the use of the grape, for have I not heard you styled the society of drunkards?"

"That is only one bad name among many, sir," said Rachel, as she took the cup.

Then they ate and were satisfied, and afterwards descended into the corn-store to wash with the remainder of the water, and clothe themselves from head to foot in the fragrant and beautiful garments that might have been made for their wear, so well had Amram judged their sizes and needs.

By the time that they were dressed the light was dying. Still, they waited a while for the darkness; then, with a new hope shining through their fears, crept silently into the street, where the slave, a sturdy, well-armed fellow, watched for them.

"To the quay," said Amram, and they walked forward, choosing those thoroughfares that were most quiet. It was well for them that they did this, for now it was known that Agrippa's sickness was mortal, the most of the soldiers were already in a state of mutiny, and, inflamed with wine, paraded the market-places and larger streets, shouting and singing obscene songs, and breaking into the liquor shops and private houses, where they drank healths to Charon, who was about to bear away their king in his evil bark. As yet, however, they had not begun killing those against whom they had a grudge. This happened afterwards, though it has nothing to do with our story.

Without trouble or molestation the party reached the quay, where a small boat with two Phoenician rowers was waiting for them. In it they embarked, except the slave, and were rowed out to the anchorage to board a large galley which lay half a mile or more away. This they did without difficulty, for the night was calm, although the air hung thick and heavy, and jagged clouds, wind-breeders as they were called, lay upon the horizon. On the lower deck of the galley stood its captain, a sour-faced man, to whom Amram introduced his passengers, who were, as he declared, relatives of his own proceeding to Alexandria.

"Good," said the captain. "Show them to their cabin, for we sail as soon as the wind rises."

To the cabin they went accordingly, a comfortable place stored with all that they could need; but as they passed to it Nehushta heard a sailor, who held a lantern in his hand, say to his companion:

"That woman is very like one whom I saw in the amphitheatre this morning when they gave the salute to King Agrippa."

"The gods forbid it!" answered the other. "We want no Christians here to bring evil fortune on us."

"Christians or no Christians, there is a tempest brewing, if I understand the signs of the weather," muttered the first man.

In the cabin Amram bade his guests farewell.

"This is a strange adventure," he said, "and one that I did not look for. May it prove to the advantage of us all. At the least I have done my best for your safety, and now we part."

"You are a good man," replied Rachel, "and whatever may befall us, I pray again that God may bless you for your kindness to His servants. I pray also that He may lead you to a knowledge of the truth as it was declared by the Lord and Master Whom we serve, that your soul may win salvation and eternal life."

"Lady," said Amram, "I know nothing of these doctrines, but I promise you this: that I will look into them and see whether or no they commend themselves to my reason. I love wealth, like all my people, but I am not altogether a time-server, or a money-seeker. Lady, I have lost those whom I desire to find again."

"Seek and you will find."

"I will seek," he answered, "though, mayhap, I shall never find."

Thus they parted.

Presently the night breeze began to flow off the land, the great sail was hoisted, and with the help of oars, worked by slaves, the ship cleared the harbour and set her course for Joppa. Two hours later the wind failed so that they could proceed only by rowing over a dead and oily sea, beneath a sky that was full of heavy clouds. Lacking any stars to steer by, the captain wished to cast anchor, but as the water proved too deep they proceeded slowly, till about an hour before dawn a sudden gust struck them which caused the galley to lean over.

"The north wind! The black north wind!" shouted the steersman, and the sailors echoed his cry dismally, for they knew the terrors of that wind upon the Syrian coast. Then the gale began to rage. By daylight the waves were running high as mountains and the wind hissed through the rigging, driving them forward beneath a small sail. Nehushta crawled out of the cabin, and, in the light of an angry dawn, saw far away the white walls of a city built near the shore.

"Is not that Appolonia?" she asked of the captain.

"Yes," he answered, "it is Appolonia sure enough, but we shall not anchor there this voyage. Now it is Alexandria for us or nothing."

So they rushed past Appolonia and forward, climbing the slopes of the rising seas.

Thus things went on. About mid-day the gale became a hurricane, and do what they would they were driven forward, till at length they saw the breakers forming on the coast. Rachel lay sick and prostrate, but Nehushta went out of the cabin to watch.

"Are we in danger?" she asked of a sailor.

"Yes, accursed Christian," he replied, "and you have brought it on us with your evil eye."

Then Nehushta returned to the cabin where her mistress lay almost senseless with sea-sickness. On board the ship the terror and confusion grew. For a while they were able to beat out to sea until the mast was carried away. Then the rudder broke, and, as the oars could not be worked in that fearful tempest, the galley began to drive shorewards. Night fell, and who can describe the awful hours that followed? All control of the vessel being lost, she drove onwards whither the wind and the waves took her. The crew, and even the oar-slaves, flew to the wine with which she was partly laden, and strove to drown their terrors in drink. Thus inflamed, twice some of them came to the cabin, threatening to throw their passengers overboard. But Nehushta barred the door and called through it that she was well armed and would kill the first man who tried to lay a hand upon her. So they went away, and after the second visit grew too drunken to be dangerous.

Again the dawn broke over the roaring, foaming sea and revealed the fate that awaited them. Not a mile away lay the grey line of shore, and between them and it a cruel reef on which the breakers raged. Towards this reef they were driving fast. Now the men grew sober in their fear, and began to build a large raft of oars and timber; also to make ready the boat which the galley carried. Before all was done she struck beak first, and was lifted on to a great flat rock, where she wallowed, with the water seething round her. Then, knowing that their hour was come, the crew made shift to launch the boat and raft on the lee side, and began to clamber into them. Now Nehushta came out of the cabin and prayed the captain to save them also, whereon he answered her with an oath that this bad luck was because of them, and that if either she or her mistress tried to enter the boat, they would stab them and cast them into the sea as an offering to the storm-god.

So Nehushta struggled back to the cabin, and kneeling by the side of her mistress, with tears told her that these black-hearted sailors had left them alone upon the ship to drown. Rachel answered that she cared little, but only desired to be free of her fear and misery.

As the words left her lips, Nehushta heard a sound of screaming, and crawling to the bulwarks, looked forth to see a dreadful sight. The boat and the raft, laden with a great number of men who were fighting for places with each other, having loosed from the lee of the ship, were come among the breakers, which threw them up as a child throws a ball at play. Even while Nehushta gazed, their crafts were overturned, casting them into the water, every one there to be dashed against the rocks or drowned by the violence of the waves, so that not a man of all that ship's company came living to the shore.

Like tens of thousands of others on this coast in all ages, they perished, every one of them—and that was the reward of their wickedness.

Giving thanks to God, Who had brought them out of that danger against their wills, Nehushta crept back to the cabin and told her mistress what had passed.

"May they find pardon," said Rachel, shuddering; "but as for us, it will matter little whether we are drowned in the boat or upon the galley."

"I do not think that we shall drown," answered Nehushta.

"How are we to escape it, Nou? The ship lies upon the rock, where the great waves will batter her to pieces. Feel how she shakes beneath their blows, and see the spray flying over us."

"I do not know, mistress; but we shall not drown."

Nehushta was right, for after they had remained fast a little longer they were saved, thus: Suddenly the wind dropped, then it rose again in a last furious squall, driving before it a very mountain of water. This vast billow, as it rushed shorewards, caught the galley in its white arms and lifted her not only off the rock whereon she lay, but over the further reefs, to cast her down again upon a bed of sand and shells, within a stone's throw of the beach, where she remained fast, never to shift more.

Now also, as though its work were done, the gale ceased, and, as is common on the Syrian coast, the sea sank rapidly, so that by nightfall it was calm again. Indeed, three hours before sunset, had both of them been strong and well, they might have escaped to the land by wading. But this was not to be, for now what Nehushta had feared befell, and when she was least fitted to bear it, being worn out with anguish of mind and weariness of body, pain took sudden hold of Rachel, of which the end was that, before midnight, there, in that broken vessel upon a barren coast where no man seemed to live, a daughter was born to her.

"Let me see the child," said Rachel. So Nehushta showed it to her by the light of a lamp which burned in the cabin.

It was a small child, but very white, with blue eyes and dark hair that curled. Rachel gazed at it long and tenderly. Then she said, "Bring me water while there is yet time."

When the water was brought she dipped her trembling hand into it, and made the sign of the Cross upon the babe's forehead, baptising her with the name of Miriam, after that of her own mother, to the service and the company of Jesus the Christ.

"Now," she said, "whether she live an hour or an hundred years, this child is a Christian, and whatever befalls, should she come to the age of understanding, see to it, Nou, who are henceforth the foster-mother of her body and her soul, that she does not forget the rites and duties of her faith. Lay this charge on her also as her father commanded, and as I command, that should she be moved to marriage, she wed none who is not a Christian. Tell her that such was the will of those who begat her, and that if she be obedient to it, although they are dead, and as it seems strengthless, yet shall their blessing be upon her all her life's days, and with it the blessing of the Lord she serves."

"Oh!" moaned Nehushta, "why do you speak thus?"

"Because I am dying. Gainsay me not. I know it well. My life ebbs from me. My prayers have been answered, and I was preserved to give this infant birth; now I go to my appointed place and to one who waits for me, and to the Lord in Whose care he is in Heaven, as we are in His care on earth. Nay, do not mourn; it is no fault of yours, nor could any physician's skill have saved me, whose strength was spent in suffering, and who for many months have walked the world, bearing in my breast a broken heart. Give me of that wine to drink—and listen."

Nehushta obeyed and Rachel went on: "So soon as my breath has left me, take the babe and seek some village on the shore where it can be nursed, for which service you have the means to pay. Then when she is strong enough and it is convenient, travel, not to Tyre—for there my father would bring up the child in the strictest rites and customs of the Jews—but to the village of the Essenes upon the shores of the Dead sea. There find out my mother's brother, Ithiel, who is of their society, and present to him the tokens of my name and birth which still hang about my neck, and tell him all the story, keeping nothing back. He is not a Christian, but he is a good and gentle-hearted man who thinks well of Christians, and is grieved at their persecution, since he wrote to my father reproving him for his deeds towards us and, as you know, strove, but in vain, to bring about our release from prison. Say to him that I, his kinswoman, pray of him, as he will answer to God, and in the name of the sister whom he loved, to protect my child and you; to do nothing to turn her from her faith, and in all things to deal with her as his wisdom shall direct—for so shall peace and blessing come upon him."

Thus spoke Rachel, but in short and broken words. Then she began to pray, and, praying, fell asleep. When she woke again the dawn was breaking. Signing to Nehushta to bring her the child, for now she could no longer speak, she scanned it earnestly in the new-born light, then placed her hand upon its head and blessed it. Nehushta she blessed also, thanking her with her eyes and kissing her. Then again she seemed to fall asleep, and presently, when Nehushta looked at her, Rachel was dead.

Nehushta understood and gave a great and bitter cry, since to her after the death of her first mistress, this woman had been all her life. As a child she had nursed her; as a maiden shared her joys and sorrows; as a wife and widow toiled day and night fiercely and faithfully to console her in her desolation and to protect her in the dreadful dangers through which she had passed. Now, to end it all, it was her lot to receive her last breath and to take into her arms her new-born infant.

Then and there Nehushta swore that as she had done by the mother she so would do by the child till the day when her labours ended. Were it not for this child, indeed, they would have ended now, Christian though she was, since she was crushed with bitter sorrow and her heart seemed void of hope or joy. All her days had been hard—she who was born to great place among her own wild people far away, and snatched thence to be a slave, set apart by her race and blood from those into whose city she was sold; she who would have naught to do with base men nor become the plaything of those of higher birth; she who had turned Christian and drunk deep of the tribulations of the faith; she who had centred all her eager heart upon two beloved women, and lost them both. All her days had been hard, and here and now, by the side of her dead mistress, she would have ended them. But the child remained, and while it lived, she would live. If it died, then perhaps she would die also.

Meanwhile Nehushta had no time for grief, since the babe must be fed, and within twelve hours. Yet, as she could not bury her, and would not throw her to the sharks, she was minded to give her mistress a royal funeral after the custom of her own Libyan folk. Here was flame, and what pyre could be grander than this great ship?

Lifting the body from its couch, Nehushta carried it to the deck and laid it by the broken mast, closing the eyes and folding the hands. Then she loosened from about the neck those tokens of which Rachel had spoken, made some food and garments into a bundle, and, carrying the lamp with her, went into the captain's cabin amidships. Here a money-box was open, and in it gold and some jewels which this man had abandoned in his haste. These she took, adding them to her own store and securing them about her. This done she fired the cabin, and passing to the hold, broke a jar of oil and fired that also. Then she fled back again, knelt by her dead mistress and kissed her, took the child, wrapping it warmly in a shawl, and by the ladder of rope which the sailors had used, let herself down into the quiet sea. Its waters did not reach higher than her middle, and soon she was standing on the shore and climbing the sandhills that lay beyond. At their summit she turned to look, and lo! yonder where the galley was, already a great pillar of fire shot up to heaven, for there was much oil in the hold and it burnt furiously.

"Farewell!" she cried, "farewell!"

Then, weeping bitterly, Nehushta walked on inland.



CHAPTER V

MIRIAM IS ENTHRONED

Presently Nehushta found herself out of sight of the sea and among cultivated land, for here were vines and fig trees grown in gardens fenced with stone walls; also patches of ripening barley and of wheat in the ear, much trodden down as though horses had been feeding there. Beyond these gardens she came to a ridge, and saw beneath her a village of many houses of green brick, some of which seemed to have been destroyed by fire. Into this village she walked boldly, and there the first sight that met her eyes was that of sundry dead bodies, upon which dogs were feeding.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse